etaoin shrdlu

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Top: Etaoin shrdlu appearing in a 1903 publication of The New York Times (third line from the bottom). Bottom: A humorous and intentional example of etaoin shrdlu in a 1916 newspaper.

etaoin shrdlu /ˈɛtˌɔɪnˈʃrədl/[1] is a nonsense phrase that sometimes appeared in print in the days of "hot type" publishing because of a custom of type-casting machine operators. It appeared often enough to become part of newspaper lore.

It is the approximate order of frequency of the 12 most commonly used letters in the English language.[2]


The letters on type-casting machine keyboards were arranged by letter frequency, so e-t-a-o-i-n s-h-r-d-l-u were the lowercase keys in the first two vertical columns on the left side of the keyboard. When an operator made a mistake in composing, he would often finish the line by running his finger down the first two rows of the keyboard and then start over. Occasionally the faulty line of hot-metal type would be overlooked and be printed erroneously. This happened often enough for "etaoin shrdlu" to be listed in the Oxford English Dictionary and in the Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.

A documentary about the last issue of The New York Times to be composed in the hot-metal printing process (2 July 1978) was titled Farewell, Etaoin Shrdlu.[3]

Appearance outside typography[edit]

A Linotype machine keyboard. It has the following alphabet arrangement twice, once for lower case (the black keys) and once for upper case (the white keys), with the keys in the middle for numbers and symbols: etaoin / shrdlu / cmfwyp / vbgkqj / xz

The phrase has gained enough notability to appear outside typography, including:


  • SHRDLU was used in 1972 by Terry Winograd as the name for an early artificial-intelligence system in Lisp.[4]
  • The ETAOIN SHRDLU Chess Program was written by Garth Courtois Jr. for the Nova 1200 mini-computer, competing in the 6th and 7th ACM North American Computer Chess Championship 1975 and 1976.[5]
  • Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach (1979) includes a dialogue entitled "SHRDLU, Toy of Man's Designing" between fictional programmer "Eta Oin" and the artificial-intelligence program SHRDLU. The title is also a play on Bach's piece Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring.
  • In the early days of computer studies of language, an examination of newspaper text and television news copy included a letter frequency count, followed by a journal article. Irving Fang concluded that the linotype machines got it nearly right. See "It Isn't ETAOIN SHRDLU; It's ETAONI RSHDLC," Journalism Quarterly, Winter 1966.


  • Etaoin Shrdlu, or a portion of the phrase, is a character in works of fiction, including: Elmer Rice's 1923 play The Adding Machine.[6]
  • Etienne Cherdlu is a character in Thomas Pynchon's story "The Secret Integration" featured in Slow Learner, a collection of novellas.[7]
  • Etaoins is used in James Thurber's 1931 Owl in the Attic to indicate the incompetence of a machine operator.
  • In H. Beam Piper's science fiction novel Four Day Planet, the protagonist is a "NewsTaper" reporting the local news; he sprinkles 1950s-era newspaper slang in his conversation. He uses Etaoin Shrdlu as imaginative "profanity" that could still be published in 1950s magazines, e.g.: "That's a double two-em-dashed lie, you etaoin shrdlu so-and-so!"[8]
  • In 1942 Etaoin Shrdlu was the title of a short story by Fredric Brown about a sentient Linotype machine. (A sequel, Son of Etaoin Shrdlu: More Adventures in Typer and Space, was written by others in 1981.)[6]
  • Anthony Armstrong's 1945 whimsical short story "Etaoin and Shrdlu" ends "And Sir Etaoin and Shrdlu married and lived so happily ever after that whenever you come across Etaoin's name even today it's generally followed by Shrdlu's".[6]
  • Edwin Morgan's poem "A View of Things", published in The Second Life (1968), contains the line, "what I love about newspapers is their etaoin shrdl".[9]
  • Around 1970, Denys Parsons published his "Gobfrey Shrdlu" series of collections of humorous printers' errors and odd facts, which he attributed to typesetters being distracted by a supernatural being called "Gobfrey Shrdlu, and his Welsh wife Cmfwyp, and his sons Etaoin and Timoᾦthy".[10] (Compare Titivillus.)
  • the name of a science fiction fanzine edited by Sheldon Lee Glashow & Steven Weinberg[11]

Other arts[edit]

  • In The Complete Charlie Parker on Verve, "JATP Blues", "Blues for Norman", "Jam Blues" and "The Opener" are credited to Shrdlu, "The Closer" to Etaoin. Etaoin is credited as the composer of "Blues" on the original 1944 10" LP Jazz at the Philharmonic (Mercury/Clef MG35005).
  • Computer terminals in the television series Caprica have their keys arranged based on ETAOIN SHRDLU rather than the traditional QWERTY.
  • The comic strip Pogo had a bookworm character named Etaoin Shrdlu.[12]
  • The phrase was used by cartoonist Horner in his "Colonel Pewter" series.
  • Underground cartoonist R. Crumb used Etoin Shrdlu on the cover of Weirdo #5, in the top center margin under a 'kilroy was here' drawing.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "etaoin shrdlu". Merriam-Webster. Encyclopædia Britannica. 
  2. ^ Stoddard, Samuel (2004). "Letter Frequency". Fun With Words. RinkWorks. Retrieved 28 June 2013. 
  3. ^ Farewell, Etaoin Shrdlu (Motion picture). New York City: Educational Media Collection/University of Washington. Retrieved 28 June 2013. 
  4. ^ Winograd, Terry. "How SHRDLU got its name". SHRDLU. Stanford University. Retrieved 28 June 2013. 
  5. ^ Courtois Jr., Garth (7 August 2008). "Am I old enough to remember keypunch cards? Umm, yeah...". Blog Archives. Retrieved 27 June 2013. 
  6. ^ a b c Quinion, Michael. "etaoin shrdlu". Weird Words. World Wide Words. Retrieved 28 June 2013. 
  7. ^ Pynchon, Thomas (1984). The Secret Intergration. Slow Learner. Boston: Back Bay Books/Little Brown. pp. 139–193. ISBN 0-316-72442-4. 
  8. ^ Piper, H. Beam (2011). Four Day Planet. The Floating Press. p. 59. ISBN 978-1-77545-543-1. 
  9. ^ Morgan, Edwin. The Second Life. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 0852244118. 
  10. ^ "Series: Gobfrey Shrdlu". LibraryThing. Retrieved 27 June 2013. 
  11. ^ "Old Legends", Gregory Benford
  12. ^ [1]

External links[edit]